Planning for Diversification

Diversification and development specialist Rural Solutions offers some key advice on how to manage the planning process and successfully achieve consent.

Wooden rural barn with big supports
Photo: Getty Images

Whether your ambitions are for a glampsite, function venue or to offer an event such as a festival, the planning hurdle is one that you must leap. It can be a challenge and, in some cases, the proposed change of use may be contrary to planning policy and therefore difficult to achieve without the right professional support.

Planning is, and always will be, a black and white process with dozens of grey areas. While every application is different, there are some basic rules of thumb that should generally be applied to help navigate what can be a challenging process.

Constraints to development
A very clear understanding of what the policy and legal constraints of the site might be from the very start is fundamental to a successful application. Constraints can be varied and will often inform the type and scale of the development at the outset.

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is, on the whole positive about tourism and leisure development in rural areas. Paragraph 83 of the NPPF is supportive of the rural economy and seeks to support sustainable rural tourism and leisure developments which respect the character of the countryside. The sustainability and vitality of rural communities through economic development is also a priority in Westminster. Adopting that policy at a local level, particularly where National Parks are concerned, is more challenging, but appropriate initiatives in rural areas are encouraged particularly with existing and redundant buildings. Achieving development in the Greenbelt is also a challenge. The conversion of existing buildings or the change of use of land is generally an easier win than building from scratch, however there may still be challenges if the site is in existing active use.

The paradox with National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) and their reluctance to see new development on their patches is that a key role of these bodies is to encourage people into the area and get them to enjoy themselves. If you cannot build anything that is fun and might attract a new audience then that remit will not be fulfilled. Often traction can be gained via engagement with multiple areas of the local authority. By getting a council’s tourism, economic development and planning departments’ thinking aligned, better progress can often be made on planning application, and there will be a clearer understanding of all parties of the related benefits a development can bring.

Heritage, environmental and highways constraints are more often than not also key considerations. Listed buildings or local heritage assets, particularly if they serve no purpose, can be perfectly acceptable as diversification opportunities providing the fabric of the building is not negatively impacted. However, beware of the pitfalls; spot listings can in some instance be applied by councils.

Environmental constraints are often responsible for applications failing. It is important that those are completely understood prior to an application being progressed. The recently published Environment Bill introduces legislation which will insist that developments do not simply mitigate for biodiversity impacts but that wherever possible actually contribute to biodiversity. This should be achieved at the design stage and particularly with well thought out landscape and ecological design.

Local Authority Planning Policy is always easily accessed online.

Engagement
Engagement is a buzzword often bandied about in planning parlance. At times, it is prudent to engage with people who may be affected by your development but be aware that all the engagement in the world will not turn some objectors into supporters or even abstainers.

However, engaging with neighbouring businesses who may benefit is a helpful tactic. Understanding the impact of your development on the visitor economy is often a powerful justification for the project. The festival or wedding venue that means other businesses benefit from the accommodation requirement is an obvious one. Cross selling and different offers working together is fundamental to micro economies in the rural sector, and engagement with anyone who may benefit in this way is key to rally support.

Overall, having a clear and realistic understanding of how your project may impact (positively and negatively) will inform its scale, design and planning tactics.

Contribution to sustainability
Clearly identifying what a site currently contributes to the local economy, environment and community and then working out what the new project could add makes for a powerful planning argument. Gazing into the crystal ball and guessing at what the potential footfall/spend per head or dwell time might be is not good enough. Your case needs to be based on robust evidence and market data. What is your catchment scale and profile? Who is the target audience? And how will they enjoy and invest in the experience offered, needs to be made clear. A well-presented, evidence-based argument that clearly demonstrates the potential contribution the scheme could bring to the ward is fundamental to a good application.

The same can be applied in terms of environmental contribution, but here attention should be paid to design and ecological/landscape design.

Consider also the vitality and sustainability of the community in social terms. How could the development help bring zest to a small rural community and give local people and their communities better prospects? Paragraph 10 of the NPPF expresses a presumption in favour of sustainable development, so make sure the evidence is there.

Frustration and appeals
The process of planning is undoubtedly time-consuming. It can also be expensive and frustrating, and even then the application can still be refused. In this instance, the grounds for refusal must be clearly understood before making a decision to appeal, and in pursuing a scheme it is essential that professional advice is sort. We would obviously, being planning consultants, advise professional input from the start but in many smaller cases that investment seems heavy handed. Deciding whether or not to appeal is an altogether different situation and going to appeal without the right advice is likely to be a waste of time and money.

Getting the most out of the process
Despite the challenges referenced above the process of making a planning application is a very good test of the feasibility of any project. The demands of an application, the evidence it requires, the thoughtfulness of design and how the project works with the landscape, as well as with the business model, really tests the reality of the initiative. The process challenges applicants to adjust their thinking in certain areas and ultimately hone the product they intend to offer. By forcing us to answer difficult questions, the planning process can often expose the weaknesses in concepts but also identify new and better ways of achieving a successful and sustainable business.

 


Case Studies

Rural Solutions has considerable experience across a wide variety of leisure and tourism developments and in achieving planning consents in sensitive locations. Here are some examples.

Shepherd Huts in Nidderdale

Shepherd Huts in Nidderdale
Rural Solutions worked with a client over several years, achieving planning consents for a range of diversification activities in order to provide an additional income stream to support their traditional farming activities. We started with attaining planning permission for five glamping shepherd huts. The applications were met with support from the local planning authority which concluded that the proposals would support the local economy while not harming the appearance and landscape character of the site and The Nidderdale AONB. The applications were approved under delegated powers.

Glamping on a large estate
We worked with an estate client to diversify their tourism portfolio by achieving planning consent for six large luxury glamping lodges on a greenfield site. The lodges were approved to enable year-round use for holiday accommodation. We negotiated our way around and resolved a number of tricky planning issues including the presence of a county wildlife site, landscape and highways issues. The site was remote from services and facilities and we also successfully made the case that it was acceptable in locational terms based on the uniqueness of the offering proposed.

Farm redevelopment in the Cotswolds
Rural Solutions achieved planning and listed building consent for a site in the Cotswolds AONB to develop a wonderfully efficient and effective scheme providing the necessary income stream to support the farming enterprise.

The permission allowed for the demolition of the existing agricultural buildings, the erection of new modern farm buildings, the conversion and change of use of a stone barn and meal house from commercial use to provide 10 units of guest accommodation, the change of use of an existing agricultural building to provide a guest pool house and the creation of domestic, equestrian facilities on the site. Engagement with Cotswold District Council included working closely with the council’s conservation and landscape officers.

Wedding space at a complex site

Wedding space at a complex site
Rural Solutions achieved planning permission and listed building consent at a complex site providing farm diversification to provide an events venue and guest accommodation. This comprised of the demolition of existing modern buildings within the farm complex, change of use of existing buildings from agricultural uses to an events venue, guest accommodation and alterations to listed and non-listed buildings.

Events space at a Leicestershire estate

Event space at a Leicestershire estate
Planning and listed building applications were made by the Rural Solutions team resulting in an award winning new and permanent opera house at a country estate in Leicestershire. The result is the creation of an outstanding new space within a Grade II* listed stable block enabling an opera festival to thrive and benefit the local visitor economy. The existing opera company has also forged close links with schools across the East Midlands and has worked with 1,500 school children to introduce them to opera. The new auditorium has an orchestra pit, stage and balcony enabling the acoustics to be significantly improved. The internal walls of the courtyard have also been uncovered. The scheme will safeguard 40 full and part time jobs as the length of the opera season can be doubled due to the new building.

 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

The Rural Solutions team combines specialist advice in rural diversification, alongside planning consultancy, architecture and landscape architecture services. www.ruralsolutions.co.uk / info@ruralsolutions.co.uk / 01756 797501.

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